Don Byers’ teammates on the Bellevue University golf team saw the notion of shooting your age—one of the rarest feats in the sport—as a canard of the wildest conceit.
But the athlete who played for one semester with the Bruins came within a mere stroke of doing just that last year during a golf vacation in Arizona.
That’s because Byers, who is 61 (and shot a 62 on a Par 62 course that day in the desert), had a four-decade advantage over most of his collegiate competitors.
This most unlikely of feel-good sports stories began with a chance meeting on the first tee of his home course, Champions Run, when he was introduced to Rob Brown, the school’s head golf coach and a friend of one of Byers’ golfing buddies.
There was nothing senescent about Byers’ swing that day. He was crushing it—with drives of nearly 300 yards and playing well under par.
Brown came to learn that Byers was a former pitcher who had blown out his arm before ever taking the mound for the University of Nebraska-Omaha baseball team back when Gerald R. Ford was in the White House. The coach playfully inquired as to whether Byers had any remaining college athletics eligibility.
But Brown, it turned out, wasn’t joking, and he discovered that Byers could play for Bellevue University because the Bruins play in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. While the NCAA restricts student-athletes to playing within five years of graduating from high school, there is no such limit in the NAIA. So the longtime insurance agent, who lives in Elkhorn with his wife, Debra, enrolled at the university with an undeclared major and green goals.
Byers encountered several challenges in joining a team of students who could be his grandkids, the first being that he was no longer the lean, lanky, 6-foot-4-inch fire-baller of his youth.
When uniforms were issued, the father of three and grandfather of four explained, “Coach handed me a pair of 38-inch-waist pants, the largest size they come, and I just kind of stared at them. I hadn’t worn a 38 in, well, quite a while.”
The team’s winter training regimen incorporates CrossFit, and Byers’ return to college athletics led to him shedding 50 pounds the hard way.
“The whole floor around me was soaked at the end of our first workout,” he says, “but the other guys hadn’t even begun to break a sweat.”
And it wasn’t the end of the workout, one of his teammates explained. “That was just the warm-up!” Byers recalls, “I could barely walk the next day.”
As he came back into fighting weight—and shape— he looked forward to contributing on the course.
He played in three rounds in the spring 2018 semester: shooting 21 strokes over par in two rounds at the March 30-31 TPC Deere Run Invitational in Silvis, Illinois, then finishing seven strokes over par at the April 17 Midland University Spring Invitational.
Records on the subject are sketchy, but Byers is among the oldest players in any sport in the history of college athletics, and his back-to-school story was featured in Sports Illustrated, the Golf Channel, Golf Digest, ESPN’s website, and USA Today.
Although he only pursued collegiate golf for five months, Byers insists his quest was anything
“I’ve always been competitive,” Byers says, “and this [was] no lark. My goal was to make the team and then make the starting five” on the squad of seven golfers. “I was treated like everyone else. I earned my place.”
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This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of 60Plus in Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.